Sunday, Oct. 16 was a dark and stormy night. The power was flickering, the wind was howling, and the lions were prowling.
Wait…the lions were prowling? Sounds like the start of a bad horror novel set in the Sahara, right? But actually, the aforementioned events took place in Zanesville, Ohio (about 50 miles east of Columbus, where I live).
It was around 9 p.m. last Sunday when I saw that a local news station had tweeted the following: ‘Exotic Animals Escape Muskingum County Animal Farm.” My first thought was that one or two animals had escaped from a zoo. The situation turned out to be much more serious: Terry Thompson, a Zanesville resident and the owner of a 73-acre private farm, had released his 56 exotic animals—including lions, Bengal tigers, grizzly bears and cheetahs—before taking his own life.
As tragic as the incident was, it has rightfully raised a lot of discussion about owning exotic animals. Ohio has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets. In Ohio, all you need to import a non-domestic animal into the state is an entry permit, a health certificate certifying the animal is free of infectious diseases, a certificate of veterinary inspection, and documentation that the animal was legal in their state or country of origin. However, eight states have no license or permit requirements for the possession of exotic animals, and Ohio is one of them.
Consequently, Ohio is among states with the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by exotic pets. At least nine people have been injured and one person killed in exotic pet related incidents in Ohio in the past six years.
As an exotic animal owner, I can understand why some people are attracted to them: learning about them is enriching; they set one apart from ordinary pet owners and they pose new challenges that some people enjoy taking responsibility for (not to mention they’re excellent conversation starters, though that’s definitely not a good reason to go out and buy an exotic pet).
But there are also obvious downsides. First of all, Boyfriend and I have two sugar gliders—not Bengal tigers. Weighing in at about 5 oz. each, they live in a cage and don’t pose an immediate threat to anyone. We’ve also seen first-hand the ways in which exotic animal owners abuse their ownership. The breeder from which Boyfriend acquired our gliders kept them in an unkempt home with three loud dogs, used them to produce two joeys, and put them up for sale when they got too old and she could no longer make money off of them.
Sadly, there are many other privately owned farms like Thompson’s in Ohio, as well as exotic animal auctions. In Mount Hope, just 80 miles north of Columbus in Amish country, exotic animals are auctioned off once they are no longer cute, fuzzy babies and can’t be used for things like photo opportunities at the county fair.
To be fair, there are plenty of instances in which exotic animals are adopted for the right reasons and cared for adequately. But in order to ensure that “plenty of instances” becomes “all instances,” stricter laws regarding exotic animal ownership need to be made, for the sake of both the animals and the people around them (imagine being Thompson’s neighbor and having small children).
In the end, it was announced that only six of Thompson’s animals were saved: three leopards, a grizzly bear, and a monkey. Dozens of other animals, including a baboon, mountain lion and endangered Bengal tigers, were killed by officers.
Although killing the animals was necessary in order to protect citizens, it certainly didn’t have to turn out this way. Perhaps if stricter laws were in place, more animal lives—not to mention Thompson’s life—could have been spared.
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